First published in the Santa Barbara Independent on July 4, 2019.
By Gail Teton-Landis
As chair of the Democratic Party of Santa Barbara County, I want to address three questions that I am often asked: Why do local political parties make endorsements for local nonpartisan elections? Why are such endorsements made before the deadline for a candidate to file papers to run for office? What “control” do local parties exert in dictating positions or votes when candidates they’ve endorsed are elected?
Why make endorsements for local nonpartisan elections? Similar to other organizations, our party’s endorsement process serves several important purposes for candidates and voters. Before any candidates are interviewed, they are required to complete a detailed questionnaire regarding their perspective on democratic values. We research and interview candidates about their positions, goals, and history. We also delve into the candidates’ ability and commitment to actively campaign, attend forums, talk with residents, and get informed on the many complex issues. This process helps identify which candidates share our organization’s core values, as well as who is committed to campaigning energetically.
Our endorsements provide voters with a guidepost to who we believe deserve voters’ confidence, donations, volunteering, and votes. Our endorsement sends a message that the candidates embrace and will fight for traditional Democratic core values that generations have fought so hard for, such as fair labor practices, civil rights, environmental safeguards, voter protection, education, health care, and more.
The endorsement process serves another important function — that of nurturing people who want to pursue public service. Candidates who earn our endorsement benefit from our support: Training in communicating with the electorate; help in raising the increasingly large sums necessary to reach out to voters; and labor from our numerous Democratic volunteers who register voters, walk neighborhoods, and help get out the vote. Our endorsement brings resources that make it possible for more non-professional candidates to even consider entering public service.
Why make our endorsements before the end of the filing period? Filing deadlines are mandated by California law, and even though Election Day locally has in effect moved up 30 days due to widespread mail-in voting, the filing deadline has not moved. Mail-in voting brings the additional cost of having to remind people earlier and more often that it’s time to vote, from when ballots arrive through the end of Election Day.
This means candidates have even less time to raise money necessary to communicate their positions through printed literature, traditional media, and social media.
And endorsements matter to voters. Many voters hold off deciding whom to support until they learn which organizations have endorsed particular candidates. That further reduces the amount of times candidates have to make use of the endorsements they have earned.
Here’s an example. For November elections, mail-in ballots arrive the first week of October. If we were to hold off on interviews and endorsements until after the mid-August filing deadline, our endorsed candidates would have less than two months to utilize the endorsement for fundraising and communicating with voters.
Given these realities, our county’s Democratic Party has actively encouraged people to apply for our endorsement in advance of the close of filing. How much in advance we make our endorsement depends on many factors such as the number of open seats, and the number of voters that must be reached. We work hard to publicize the opportunity and we welcome anyone who seeks our endorsement.
What control does the Democratic Party exercise when our endorsed candidates succeed and spread their wings as elected officials? The short answer is “not much.”
First, it’s pretty clear that the Democratic Party is a big tent. Just witness the current scene nationally, statewide, and locally as we work with the various wings of our party from the most conservative to the most progressive.
Second, most city council and county supervisor decisions are unanimous. The few split decisions are often not along party lines. We frequently see Democrats passionately voting on opposite sides of an issue. Just look at a few of the recent differing votes by Democratic officials on several major issues including Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), the Average Unit-size Density program (AUDs), and more. The reality is that as they decide their positions and votes, elected officials look to constituents, staff, and other officials, not the party.
I hope these comments will increase understanding of our local Democratic Party’s endorsement process. Members of the Santa Barbara Democratic Party Central Committee are volunteers. We donate our time and commitment to furthering democratic values. We are open and eager to involve all who share our basic values. We welcome vigorous public debate and an open process, the very cornerstone of our democracy.
Anyone who wants to learn more should go to our website https://www.sbdems.org/. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, contact us.
And if you do find what you’re looking for, join us.